The Government and the Christian (Luther)

 The Christian faith is not opposed to civil authority.  For example, Scripture calls followers of Jesus to respect authority, pray for leaders in positions of authority, and live peaceful lives for the benefit of society.  In fact, it is a proper interpretation of the fifth commandment to include obedience to those in authority over us.  Martin Luther understood this when he gave instructions on the fifth commandment and civil government.  Here’s a summary of what he said in light of that commandment and Romans 13:

[We owe the government] first, the payment of taxes, namely that each shall give the authorities such money and labor as is required of him.

Second, respect, that is, that we have sincere respect for government….

The third duty we owe government is honor.  …This means, first, that we recognize that government is from God and that through it he gives us much greater benefits.  For if God did not maintain government and justice in the world, the devil, who is a murderer, would everywhere bring about murder, so that none of us could be sure of life, wife, or children.

But God sustains government and through it gives peace and punishes and guards against the wicked, so that we may support wife and children, bring up children in the discipline and knowledge of God, have security in our homes and on the streets, that each may help the other, and communicate and live with another.  Such gifts are altogether of heaven, and God desires that we consider and recognize them as gifts of God.  He desires us to honor government as a servant of his and to show gratitude to it because through it God gives us such great benefits.  …If you knew that someone had saved your child from death, you would thank him warmly.  Why then are you not grateful to the government which saves you, your children, your wife, daily from murder?  If the government did not restrain the wicked, when could we be secure?

Luther goes on to note how we should pray for the government.  He also writes that it is true that some people abuse the ordinance of government, but government itself is not a bad thing since God instituted it.  It’s similar to marriage: sometimes marriage is abused by the wicked, but marriage itself is not wicked since it is an ordinace of God.

I appreciate Luther’s perspective on government.  It is true that no country is perfect.  There are sinful people in every government and every government rules over sinful people – that’s not a good mix!!  But when a government maintains even relative justice and relative peace in the land, we can thank God for that. It’s a common grace blessing.  Here in the United States there are many aspects of our government’s policies and laws that I disagree with, but I’m very glad that my family can sleep safely every night.  I’m also glad that I almost never have to worry about violent crime.  Reminder to self: Thank God more often for the protection and safety our government provides!

[Of course, there are governments that are so crooked that people are constantly worried about violent crime.  I don’t have time and space to expand upon that here and now, but Luther does talk about that as well in this context.  You’ll have to find it on your own or perhaps I’ll come back to the topic later.]

The above quote is found in volume 40 of Luther’s Works, page 281-284.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Anger, Consumerism, and Big Government

I’m very much enjoying Chuck Colson’s My Final Word, which is a collection of his previously unpublished short articles.  While I don’t agree with everything Colson wrote, much of it is wise, timely, and helpful.  For instance, in one short article from around ten years ago he noted a puzzling fact: even though the United States and Britain both were doing quite well economically, their leaders were detested by so many of their citizens.  Why is this?  Why are so many people so angry? Colson wondered.  Here’s his two part answer, which I’ve edited for length:

1) The more people have, the angrier they get.  Witness the fact that America is regarded as one of the most unhappy nations on earth, according to recent studies.  We take more tranquilizers than any other people, and yet we have an extremely high standard of living.  The happiest people, according to the same survey, turned out to be Nigerians, who have one of the lowest standards of living.  The problem is, we are spoiled rotten.  We’ve got everything we could possibly want.  But we’re not happy and we don’t know why, so we get angry at everybody else.

2) The second problem is that we have politicized everything.  We think nothing is going to happen that isn’t proposed in Washington, argued by the talking heads at night, and then voted on, and if they can’t deliver, then we know that we should have thrown the bums out anyway.  If you once get the notion in your head that there’s a political solution to everything, and you don’t have to do anything except let those people take care of everything for you, you will eventually be controlled by those people.  But in the meantime, government will get so big and cumbersome it can’t even function.  And that’s the point we’re at.

Excellent points!  True happiness does not come from possessions or political programs.  Elsewhere Colson notes that true joy and happiness only come in Christ and from being part of his body, the church.

The above quote was taken from pages 122-123 of Colson’s, My Final Word (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015).  [Note: as with some other books on this blog, I received this one for the purpose of blogging/reviewing, and I am not compelled to give a positive review.]

shane lems

An Ancient Prayer for Government

Apostolic Fathers, The, 3rd ed.: Greek Texts and English Translations The Bible clearly calls Christians to honor, obey, and pray for those in authority over us, such as our civil government (Jer. 29:7, Rom. 13, 1 Pet. 2:13-17, Titus 3:1, etc.).  Although it’s not always easy to do, God’s people have been doing it for a long, long time!  One ancient example is found in 1 Clement, a letter written to Christians in Rome somewhere between 80 and 100 AD.  Here’s the excerpt of a prayer for civil government, found in 1 Clement 60:4-61:3:

“…[Lord], give harmony and peace to us and to all who dwell on the earth, just as you did to our ancestors when they reverently called upon you in faith and truth, that we may be saved, while we render obedience to your almighty and most excellent name, and to our rulers and governors on earth.”

“You, Master, have given them the power of sovereignty through your majestic and inexpressible might, so that we, acknowledging the glory and honor that you have given them, may be subject to them, resisting your will in nothing.  Grant to them, Lord, health, peace, harmony, and stability, so that they may blamelessly administer the government that you have given them.”

“For you, heavenly Master, King of the ages, give to human beings glory and honor and authority over the creatures upon the earth.  Lord, direct their plans according to what is good and pleasing in your sight, so that by devoutly administering in peace and gentleness the authority that you have given them may experience your mercy.  You, who alone are able to do these and even greater good things for us, we praise through the high priest and benefactor of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom be the glory and the majesty to you both now and all generations and for ever and ever.  Amen.”

This section of 1 Clement was taken from The Apostolic Fathers, ed. by Michael Holmes.

shane lems

Excluding Religion From Government and Politics?

I recently purchased Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible at a local thrift store for just a few bucks.  Since I’m a pastor, I always keep my political opinions away from the pulpit and usually keep them to myself even in private discussions.  However, I am somewhat interested in things closely related to politics (i.e. American history, ethics, and of course texts like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2), so this book captured my attention.  After briefly looking through it, I realize the title is quite inaccurate; I also know I’ll disagree with some of it (stay tuned for a longer review in the future).  But what I’ve read so far has been helpful.

Here are Grudem’s [edited and summarized] arguments against the modern idea that government should completely exclude religion from the public square – the idea that there should be a radical and definite church/state separation.  Why is this modern idea incorrect?

“a) It fails to distinguish the reasons for a law from the content of the law.  There were religious reasons behind many of our [American] laws [in the past], but these laws do not ‘establish’ a religion.  All major religions have teachings against stealing, but laws against stealing do not ‘establish a religion.’  All religions have laws against murder, but laws against murder do not ‘establish a religion.’

b) It overrides the will of the people.  [Here Grudem talks about a few court cases where a majority vote about an ethical matter was overruled by the Supreme Court (i.e. Colorado’s 1996 Romer v. Evans, Iowa’s 2009 Varnum v. Brien, and California’s Proposition 8).]  This kind of decision is the natural outcome of the ‘exclude religion from government’ view, and it simply overrides the will of the people in amending their state’s constitution.

c) It changes freedom of religion into freedom from religion.  From the perspective of American history, another reason that ‘exclude religion’ is a wrong viewpoint is that it twists the positive ideal of ‘freedom of religion’ to mean ‘freedom from all religious influence’ – which is something entirely different and something the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the US Constitution never intended.

d) It wrongly restricts freedom of religion and freedom of speech.  The First Amendment also excluded any law ‘prohibiting the free exercise’ of religion.  Therefore the First Amendment is directly opposed to the ‘exclude religion from government’ view, which actually seeks to prohibit Christians and Jews and many other religious backgrounds from exercising their religious freedom when arguing for an amendment to the Colorado constitution, or when arguing for a certain jury verdict, or when speaking or giving a prayer at a public event.  Their free exercise of religion is taken away from them.

e) It was never adopted by the American people.  The ‘exclude religion’ view was never adopted by the American people through any democratic process, but it is being imposed on our nation by the exercise of ‘raw judicial power’ by our courts, and especially by the Supreme Court.  This has been an increasing problem for the last several decades in America.”

f) [There are] biblical examples of God’s people giving counsel to rulers.  The Bible gives several examples of faithful believers who gave clear witness to government officials about how they should govern.  [For example, Daniel 4:27, Luke 3:19, Acts 24:25]  In addition, many Old Testament prophets spoke to foreign nations about their sins.

g) The spiritual basis for the ‘exclude religion’ view.  …The final goal of the ‘exclude religion’ view is to make government completely secular and then, by extension, to make society completely secular.  …This view would tend to remove from the entire nation any sense of absolute moral standards or any sense that there is any clear way of knowing right from wrong.   Therefore the ultimate goal of this viewpoint is not only the destruction of all belief in God, but also the complete moral disintegration of a society.”

Now, I’m not saying that I perfectly agree with everything Grudem says in this section I’ve edited and posted here.  I might nuance things a bit differently, and some of our readers might not agree with all these points and explanations.  But I like this because it is thoughtful, reasonable, and written from the perspective of a Christian worldview.  Again, I hope to give a more detailed review of this book later.  For now, if you’re interested in the above topic, I also recommend Os Guinness, The Case For Civility.

Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 29-36.

shane lems

Politics, Religion, and Hart

I confess: I’m not bent towards politics in the least.  I vote, obey the government best I can, and pray for those in authority over me.  I wore the Green willingly for six years, and I have read stuff by Thomas Paine, Dwight Eisenhower, and a just few more such American political figures.  But that’s as far my political mind goes.

From a theological side, though, the interaction between the gospel and Western culture fascinates me.  I’ve enjoyed Newbigin lately (which you know if you follow us here at all), who is as provocative as he is edifying.  Another helpful book I recently finished is Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith (Chicago: Ivan R Dee, 2006).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  One of the first big statements that caught my eye was this: “The basic teachings of Christianity (my note: think Apostle’s Creed) are virtually useless for resolving America’s political disputes, thus significantly reducing, if not eliminating, the dilemma of how to relate Christianity and American politics” (p. 11).

Another such statement that I pondered was this one: “The trick of successfully employing any faith for public ends is to have access to the socially useful parts of religion while leaving behind its dogmatic and sectarian baggage” (p. 13).  In other words, “…efforts to use Christianity for public or political ends fundamentally distort the Christian religion because it is essentially an otherworldly faith” (p. 16).

Again, though I’m no politician, I do wince when politicians use religious garb to either make themselves look religious or to bathe their talk with “spirituality.”  I wince when Christians equate a certain political position with the Creed.  I believe Hart is right: this kind of stuff sucks the creedal core out of Christianity and leaves one with a shell of moralism.

I’ll interact with this book more later, along with D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited and a few other Newbigin books.  Stay tuned!

shane lems

sunnyside wa